A Novel for Dads and Husbands

Almost never do I finish a novel, and then immediately re-read it. But I found the novel Us, by David Nicholls, so delightful and moving that I flipped right back to page one upon completing it.

The book opens with a wife, Connie, awakening her husband in the middle of the night. In his stupor, the husband, Douglas, stumbles downstairs, thinking his wife has heard a burglar. When he returns to the bedroom to report there is no burglar, Connie is frustrated: she was trying to tell him she has decided she wants to leave him. But first, she wants the two of them and their 17-year-old son to go on a Grand Tour of Europe together.

From beginning to end, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry, and ended up doing both.

The book is written as a series of journal entries by Douglas, a scientist who believes he’s doing all he can to save his marriage and repair his relationship with their son. As they journey through Paris, Amsterdam, and Barcelona, Douglas recognizes that he needs to have skin in the game after years of being detached, on auto-pilot, and ignoring what matters to Connie and Albie, the son.

The book is a meditation on past and present, impulse and obligation, and the choices we face in maintaining relationships. I’ll let Douglas speak for himself:

Early in their marriage: “Light travels differently in a room that contains another person; it reflects and refracts so that even when she was silent or sleeping I knew that she was there. I loved the evidence of her past presence and the promise of her return. ‘Domestic bliss’ – the pairing of those words made perfect sense to me.”

And then later, about his childhood expectations of marriage: “The day after the wedding, you begin to walk hand in hand across this great wide plateau and in the distance ahead there are scattered obstacles, but there are also pleasures. …Failures too, but nothing that will kill you.”

However, he discovers it’s not a plateau at all: “There are ravines and great jagged peaks and hidden crevasses that send the both of you scrabbling into darkness. Then there are dull, parched stretches that you feel will never end, and much of the journey is in fraught silence…and the journey is hard.”

The book has abrupt twists and turns, as the grand tour of Europe careens toward disaster many time over, and mom, dad and son appear hopelessly alienated from one another. Douglas eventually confronts many truths about his own reality, stripped of literally all his belongings and never giving up, after his son goes missing. Douglas gains humbling and hard-won discoveries about himself and his relationships.

From beginning to end, Us is poignant, hilarious, and amazingly insightful. I recommend this book wholeheartedly to husbands and dads, and the partners in their lives as well.

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